Ron Finley | Guerilla gardeners vs. food deserts

Ron FInleyI live in South Central. This is South Central: liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.

So the city planners, they get together and they figure they’re going to change the name South Central to make it represent something else, so they change it to South Los Angeles, like this is going to fix what’s really going wrong in the city. This is South Los Angeles: liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.

Just like 26.5 million other Americans, I live in a food desert. South Central Los Angeles, home of the drive-thru and the drive-by. Funny thing is, the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys. People are dying from curable diseases in South Central Los Angeles. For instance, the obesity rate in my neighborhood is five times higher than, say, Beverly Hills, which is probably eight, 10 miles away.

I got tired of seeing this happening. And I was wondering, how would you feel if you had no access to healthy food; if every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood? I see wheelchairs bought and sold like used cars. I see dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks. And I figured, this has to stop. So I figured that the problem is the solution. Food is the problem and food is the solution. Plus I got tired of driving forty-five minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides.

So what I did, I planted a food forest in front of my house. It was on a strip of land that we call a parkway. It’s one hundred and fifty feet by ten feet. Thing is, it’s owned by the City. But you have to maintain it. So I’m like, “Cool. I can do whatever the hell I want, since it’s my responsibility, and I gotta maintain it.” And this is how I decided to maintain it.

So me and my group, LA Green Grounds, we got together and we started planting my food forest, fruit trees, vegetables, you know, the whole nine yards. What we do, we’re a pay-it-forward kind of group, where it’s composed of gardeners from all walks of life, from all over the city, and it’s completely volunteer, and everything we do is free. And the garden, it was beautiful.

And then somebody complained. The City came down on me, and basically gave me a citation saying that I had to remove my garden, which this citation was turning into a warrant. And I’m like, “Come on, really? A warrant for planting food on a piece of land that you could care less about?” And I was like, “Cool. Bring it.” Because this time I wasn’t giving up. So L.A. Times got a hold of it. Steve Lopez did a story on it and talked to the councilman, and one of the Green Grounds members, they put up a petition on, and with nine hundred signatures, we were a success. We had a victory on our hands. My councilman even called in and said how they endorse and love what we’re doing. I mean, come on, why wouldn’t they? L.A. leads the United States in vacant lots that the City actually owns. They own twenty-six square miles of vacant lots. That’s twenty Central Parks. That’s enough space to plant seven hundred twenty-five million tomato plants. Why in the hell would they not okay this? Growing one plant will give you a thousand, ten thousand seeds. When one dollar’s worth of green bean seeds will give you seventy-five dollars’ worth of produce. It’s my gospel, when I’m telling people, grow your own food. Growing your own food is like printing your own money.

See, I have a legacy in South Central. I grew up there. I raised my sons there. And I refuse to be a part of this manufactured reality that was manufactured for me by other people. I’m manufacturing my own reality.

Ron Finley's food forest

Finley’s Food Forest #1

See, I’m an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. I grow my art. Just like a graffiti artist, where they beautify walls, me, I beautify lawns, parkways. I use the garden, the soil, like it’s a piece of cloth, and the plants and the trees, that’s my embellishment for that cloth. You’d be surprised what the soil could do if you let it be your canvas. You just couldn’t imagine how amazing a sunflower is and how it affects people.

So what happened? I have witnessed my garden become a tool for the education, a tool for the transformation of my neighborhood. To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil. You’d be surprised how kids are affected by this. Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus you get strawberries.

I remember one time there was this mother and a daughter who came, it was, like, 10:30 at night, and they were in my yard, and I came out and they looked so ashamed. So I’m like, man, it made me feel bad that they were there, and I told them, you know, you don’t have to do this like this. This is on the street for a reason. it made me feel ashamed to see people that were this close to me that were hungry, and this only reinforced why I do this. People ask me, “Fin, aren’t you afraid people are going to steal your food?” And I’m like, “Hell no, I ain’t afraid they’re gonna steal it. That’s why it’s on the street. That’s the whole idea. I want them to take it, but at the same time, I want them to take back their health.”

There’s another time when I put in a garden in this homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles. These guys helped me unload the truck. It was cool, and they just shared the stories about this this affected them, and how they used to plant with their mother and their grandmother, and it was just cool to see how this changed them, if it was only for that one moment.

So Green Grounds has gone on to plant maybe twenty gardens. We’ve had, like, fifty people come to our dig-ins and participate, and it’s all volunteers. If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. But when none of this is presented to them, if they’re not shown how food affects the mind and the body, they blindly eat whatever the hell you put in front of them.

I see young people, and they want to work, but they’re in this thing where they’re caught up–I see kids of color and they’re just on this track that’s designed for them, that leads them to nowhere. So with gardening, I see an opportunity where we can train these kids to take over their communities, to have a sustainable life. And when they do this, who knows? We might produce the next George Washington Carver, but if we don’t change the composition of the soil we will never do this.

Now this is one of my plans. This is what I want to do. I want to plant a whole block of gardens where people can share in the food in the same block. I want to take shipping containers and turn them into healthy cafes. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about no free shit, because free is not sustainable. The funny thing about sustainability: you have to sustain it. [Laughs] What I’m talking about is putting people to work and getting kids off the street, and letting them know the joy, the pride, and the honor in growing your own food, opening farmers’ markets.

So we gotta make this sexy. So I want us all to become ecolutionary renegades, gangstas, gangsta gardeners. We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Get gansta with your shovel, okay? And let that be your weapon of choice.

So basically, if you want to meet with me, you know, don’t call me if you want to sit around in cushy chairs and have meetings where you talk about doing some shit. If you want to meet with me, come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some shit.


Thank you.


This is the transcript of a talk given at TED 2013 Long Beach, California, that has already had more than one million views:

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